Saturday, April 27, 2019

ACPT 2019 Recap

After the fantastic year I had last year, I suppose there was no place to go but down. Still, I was disappointed with myself -- I made mistakes in two puzzles (one square per puzzle), and for those of you who understand ACPT rules, you'll understand that that seriously hurt my results. As in past years, therefore, I will share my actual results and my "wouldabeen" results if I hadn't made those mistakes. I like fantasyland... 😉

(Warning: a few spoilers ahead!)

Overall results:

  • #39 overall, with 11365 points ("wouldabeen" #14, with 11755 points; and still "wouldabeen" #14 even if I had taken another minute to check Puzzle 3. Note to self: Check the damn puzzles!)
  • I'm no longer in the B division, because I was in the B finals last year -- but I would have been #17 in B even with the mistakes, and "wouldabeen" #1 in B without the mistakes
  • #8 of solvers in their 50s ("wouldabeen" #2)
  • #5 in New England ("wouldabeen" #3, behind Joon Pahk (who was in the A finals and placed 2nd) and Katie Hamill (who started the same year I did and has been consistently, noticeably faster than me every year we were at the tournament together). Not much chance of my winning a trophy (top two solvers) in New England unless one of them stays home...
On the plus side, the mistakes were entirely avoidable, and my (relative) speed was just as fast as last year, so I am optimistic. I "wouldahad" another really great year if I had just paid a bit more attention.

For the first time, I did not beat Dr Fill (and would have been just below (about two minutes behind) in fantasyland). I concede defeat for this year, but just wait until next year! 

Puzzle results:

  • Puzzle 1: 4 minutes (time limit: 15 minutes; Dan Feyer (and Dan Feyer alone) solved this puzzle in 2 minutes(!)). At this point, I was in a 37-way(!) tie for 10th place.
  • Puzzle 2: 7 minutes (time limit: 25; three solvers (Dan, Joon, and Erik Agard) solved this in 4 minutes). Now in a 12-way tie for 14th place.
  • Puzzle 3: 7 minutes (time limit: 30; fastest time: 5 minutes (Dan and Erik)) - one mistake on this one (about which more later), and I was pretty much screwed. Tumbled down to #56.
  • Puzzle 4: 6 minutes (time limit: 20; Erik Agard (and Erik Agard alone, blazing his way back from a mistake on puzzle 1 to finish in 6th place!) solved this in 3 minutes). Now at #38.
  • Puzzle 5: 13 minutes (time limit: 20; fastest time (Dan, Joon, Erik): 6 minutes). Another error cemented my fate. Even with the error on puzzle 3, I "wouldabeen" #25 if not for this mistake. In reality: #61.
  • Puzzle 6: 7 minutes (time limit: 30; fastest time -- 4 minutes (Dan, Erik; are you sensing a pattern yet?)). Now at #52.
  • Puzzle 7: 10 minutes (time limit: 45; fastest time -- 7 minutes (Dan)). And eventually, after various scoring errors (of other solvers) were resolved, I finished at the aforementioned #39.

I made a foolish mistake on Puzzle 3. I was racing to finish under the wire of 7 minutes, and didn't take enough time to check it. I put ETAGE instead of STAGE for "Tour de France leg," creating (but not ever noticing) the crossing (non-)word THIRET instead of THIRST. Dumb. But these things happen. 

Only 8 solvers solved Puzzle 3 faster than I did -- but you lose 195 points for one mistake (25-pt penalty from the time bonus for the wrong letter; 20-pt penalty for two wrong words; and 150-pt loss of the 'perfect solution' bonus). So I had the 153rd highest score, and was now in 56th place. If not for the mistake, I "wouldabeen" tied with Katie for 11th place. 

I had had it in my head that since I had no hope of the A finals, I should "go for broke" and push for the fastest possible times, taking risks to try to break into the top ten. Because why not?? And I think I could possibly be capable of a top-ten finish someday if all of the stars align -- but in practice, the risks didn't quite pay off. (Note that with clean solves, I would have had to be 4 minutes faster to be in the top ten this year. It's a stretch but doable.)

Here's the thing, though: once you make a mistake, it's really hard to stop thinking about it, and that lack of focus would come back to haunt me on The Dreaded Puzzle 5. (Erik's ability to push back to a sixth-place finish after a mistake on Puzzle 1 just amazes me. Nerves of steel!!)

Puzzle 5: I was overthinking this puzzle the whole time, with part of my brain constantly telling the rest of it, "You'll probably mess up, this is going to be too hard for you." And sure enough, I was in low-level panic mode and so never fully understood the very tricky theme -- which meant that I simply wasn't able to check all of my answers. I had BALLETS instead of BILLETS (guessing at ALENE instead of ILENE for the down clue, which referred to a person I didn't know). If I had understood the theme (and honestly, it really wasn't too hard for me, and I almost figured it out, but my brain just kept sliding away from it...) -- I would have known that PHONE JACK and BILLETS mutated into PHONE BILL and JACKETS by switching the names BILL and JACK, and that PHONE BALL didn't make sense and BALL isn't a man's name anyway. (Even with that mistake, I still had the 125th highest score, which tells you just what a bloodbath Puzzle 5 is for most solvers. My score was 1340, and the median score was around 850.)

I am not complaining, mind you! #39 out of over 700 solvers is none too shabby. And I was really fast on all puzzles, not at my very top pace on a few perhaps, but nearly as fast as I can be. And I did do some pretty good clawing-back to recover somewhat after the two errors. Plus I won a prize with a second-place finish in my category on the Friday night puzzles. So there was a modicum of triumph to be had. Still, I am hoping next year will be smoother sailing! See you in Stamford!

Monday, May 28, 2018

2018 ACPT Recap


At long last, I did it -- I had a year with no regrets, no "what ifs," and trophies! I have trophies!

Overall results:

  • B champion (finished first in the main tournament and first in the playoffs) -- you can watch me in the finals!
  • #1 of solvers in their 50s
  • #2 in the mid-Atlantic (behind only the tournament champion, Erik Agard -- but WAY behind Erik, 26 minutes behind (across the first 7 puzzles), to be exact... you can watch Erik in the A finals to see just outclassed I am)
Also, I was one of 61 solvers to solve all 7 puzzles correctly -- and I beat Dr. Fill (who finished in 55th place) again!

Puzzle results:

  • Puzzle 1: 4 minutes (time limit: 15 minutes; fastest time of any solver: 2 minutes (I am not making that up)). Originally my puzzle was marked incorrectly, with a 5-minute time instead of 4 minutes.  That messed with my scores all day, but in a perverse way, I think it made me solve better because I knew I was always going to be ahead of where I showed up in the rankings.
  • Puzzle 2: 6 minutes (time limit: 25; fastest time: 4 minutes)
  • Puzzle 3: 9 minutes (time limit: 30; fastest time: 5 minutes)
  • Puzzle 4: 5 minutes (time limit: 20; fastest time: 3 minutes)
  • Puzzle 5: 19 minutes (time limit: 30; fastest time: 5 minutes -- again, I am not making this up). I was actually pretty disappointed with my time on this puzzle, but it turned out to be fast enough...
  • Puzzle 6: 7 minutes (time limit: 30; fastest time -- 5 minutes)
  • Puzzle 7: 11 minutes (time limit: 45; fastest time -- 6 minutes)
  • Puzzle 8 (B finals): 5 minutes, 51 seconds
I came into the tournament on a complete adrenaline high, after my interview at Simmons on Thursday and Friday (which went really well, as you can see!). I think that the energy and excitement of the interview carried over into the weekend, and partly accounts for my amazing tournament year.

I took the early train down to Stamford on Saturday morning, arriving in time to mingle a bit and settle in to a solving seat. They had redirected me (based on contestant number) to overflow seating in the basement, which I was a little annoyed about first, but then decided it was my lucky spot, and stayed down there for all seven puzzles.  It was better because all of the A solvers were upstairs, so I didn't have to be distracted by the door opening and closing (on most puzzles, I got to be the distraction...).

As of Sunday morning, with the time correction on puzzle #1 in place, I was in 1st place in B, 1st place in Fifties, 2nd place in mid-Atlantic, and 17th place overall.  So I knew I had a good shot at keeping those positions if I was fast and clean (no mistakes) on the Sunday morning puzzle #7.  I was especially glad to be in the overflow room in the basement again, since I didn't want to see or talk to anybody I knew and I feel like "good luck!" would jinx it -- I just wanted to stay calm and focus on the puzzle.  It went really well -- I finished in 11 minutes (with 34 minutes left on the clock for the 45-minute Sunday-size puzzle).

I had the chance to meet and talk to all of the other top B and 50s competitors after #7, and they were all 1-3 minutes slower than me, so I knew that if I solved it cleanly, I'd maintain my spot in all of those categories.

To clear my head, I went for a long walk inside the mall across the street (too cold to walk outside for long!), sat over there and did a few large-grid puzzles to get in that habit, and went back for the talent show -- but sat in the back so I wouldn't see too many people I knew.  After the end of the talent show, they set up for the finals and started making the announcements.  They start with the 'least competitive' awards (best handwriting, top 10 rookie solvers) and work their way 'up', skipping over any awards that will be won by somebody who's won a 'higher' award -- ending with the A (elite) finalists.  When they skipped over the mid-Atlantic category entirely, I was pretty sure that things had gone well and I was going to be in the finals.  (The #3 solver in the mid-Atlantic wasn't in contention for any other awards, so the fact that her name wasn't announced meant I probably had maintained my spot.  She barely beat me out last year for that #2 mid-Atlantic spot, based on the final puzzle (I had been ahead of her before that), so now we're even. 😁) Sure enough, they got to the B category, announced the #3 and #2 finalists, and then Will Shortz said, "And number one in the B division, with 11,530 points, 1st in Fifties, 2nd in mid-Atlantic, and in 15th place overall:  Marie desJardins."  He even pronounced my name correctly. 😄(Note that I am actually in 14th place -- my position changed due to a scoring error that was corrected after the tournament, but it wouldn't have affected the other results.)

It's hard to describe how amazing it felt to finally be called up as a finalist, after ten years of gradually increasing my ranking, by fits and starts.  For years, I really never considered I would ever be competitive for the B finals (but I was a little too good to qualify for the C finals).  Then I started getting faster and better, and people started occasionally noticing me.  A few years ago, I was out in the hallway after finishing puzzle #1 in 4 minutes (one minute behind the fastest solver, and with maybe 20 other solvers finishing as fast as me), and I could see the A players thinking, "Now who the hell is this?" -- but I still wasn't nearly fast enough or competitive enough on the really hard puzzles (#2 and #5) or on the large puzzles (#7) to get near the B finals.  So I started doing more of those puzzles, and developing better mental strategies to avoid careless mistakes.  This year it finally paid off and everything just came together like magic.

When you make into the A or B finals, you have to leave the room with an escort right away (for me, after running back to my seat to get my reading glasses, which was a good idea because although the whiteboard you solve on was plenty visible, the clues would have been a bit blurry without the glasses).  You go downstairs into a holding room and sit nervously chatting with the other five A and B finalists.  I went down to the bathroom, chatted, smiled, showed off my cool crossword sneakers, and breathed deeply.  After about 15-20 minutes, when the C finalists have finished, they bring you upstairs and you wait outside for a few minutes, then are brought inside.  The names are announced again, from 1st to 3rd, and you're placed at the corresponding whiteboard, in front of an audience of about 800 people (most of the solvers (except those who have left) and various guests).  The top finalist is at the center board, so that's where I stood.  You have to put in earbuds and then big noise-cancelling earphones, and you have a tape player that's playing loud white noise (static/storm sounds plus an overlaid sound track of voices at the UN assembly, so you can hear murmuring and voices in the distance but can't hear the room noise at all -- except when they laugh or groan loudly, when the background noise gets just a little louder).  You test the markers (three brand-new markers), decide if you want to hold something to erase the board or just use your hand (I experimented and decided to hold a tissue in my left hand along with the clues), and practice writing a few letters on the grid just to get the hang of it.  I also wrote along the side margin, a few scribbles and "HI MOM". 😊)

Then they tap you on the shoulder when it's time to start solving -- the first player gets a few seconds of headstart over the 2nd, and the 2nd over the 3rd, based on how much higher your score is.  I just waded in and followed my usual strategy (start with the shorter words, look for the longer word crossings, fill them in quickly if you can but otherwise move on for more fertile ground, follow the filled-in pattern across the grid, mostly doing the shortest words first because they're the easiest and give you clues for the longer crossing words, don't get stuck and panic but don't jump around from one part of the board to the other).  It's hard to look at the big board and the clues, so in the video, you can see me using my finger to scroll down the clues and locate my place.  I really never slowed down during the whole solve, though there are a few places where you'll see me looking back and forth between the puzzle and the clues several times -- usually that was when there were a couple of possible answers to some clues, and I was using the crossing words to figure out which one to fill in -- so then after I started writing, I'd write two or three words in rapid succession.  

I finished up, stepped back to thoroughly check the grid for completion and sense-making, turned around and (as you are required to) said, "Done."  I had been able to see the other two contestants out of the corner of my eye, so I knew they hadn't finished yet, but I had no idea how close we were (I couldn't see their boards at all, only edge-on).  I also couldn't see the clock until I stepped back, but later I learned I had finished in 5 minutes and 51 seconds.  When I looked back at the boards, I could see that one of my competitors was only about half done, and the other one still had a quarter to a third of the grid left.  So I was pretty far ahead of them.  But I still didn't know with 100% certainty whether I was clean or not -- it looked that way but there could have been a mistake somewhere (which is why the #3 competitor kept steadily solving until he was positive he was done and clean).  We all had clean solves, so I won the whole thing.  

It was just the way I had always hoped it would go if I ever got into the B finals.  I wasn't sure whether I'd start second-guessing or overthinking the process, being rattled by having to solve in front of a room full of people -- but I didn't.  I just stayed focused and was nearly as fast as I would have been if solving on paper under ideal circumstances.  The white-noise headphones really helped to tune out the fact that people were watching me -- I just didn't think about that except in the very back of my mind.  (At several points I had a letter or two wrong, and I could hear the background noise pick up when I erased and corrected those errors, possibly the crowd reacting to that -- though the same reaction happens when a solver goes the other way and changes a right letter to a wrong letter, or when the announcers make a bad joke!) 

Ophira Eisenberg (host of NPR's "Ask Me Another" trivia show) and polymath crossword puzzle constructor Greg Pliska provided the color commentary that you can hear on the video.

After the tournament ended, I hung around the hotel for a few hours because my train didn't leave until 4pm.  A lot of people came up to congratulate me, especially other women who were very happy to see a woman not only in the finals but actually winning.  The gender statistics at the tournament are very skewed -- the very top solvers are almost all men, with just a few women in the top echelon.  It's gradually changing, though, and I think in the next generation there are more really strong female solvers.  There were three women who were ranked higher than me.  One thing I've noticed is that there are several elite male solvers who do puzzles for a living and who spend hours every day doing puzzles and (in part) training for the competition.  The women tend to have other lives and interests outside of puzzling.

Many A solvers came up to me to congratulate me, welcome me to the A division, and express their condolences that I am now with most of them in "the A ghetto" (meaning that most A solvers are very unlikely to make the A finals, but aren't eligible for B finals until they "time out" again after 7 years -- part of the reason I was able to get into the B division this year is that there were no recently-timed-out A solvers competing). I'm OK with that, though -- it takes all of the pressure off of getting into the finals!

See you all next year!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

ACPT 2017 Recap

Well, that was a good year!

#tl;dr I was heartbreakingly close (5 seconds, to be precise) to bringing home three trophies, but somehow I don't feel disappointed at all. (And I am exceedingly happy for Roberta Strauss, who edged me out in all three categories we share (B solvers, mid-Atlantic, solvers in their 50s).) I had seven clean solves (no errors) and some of my best times ever on a few of the puzzles.

PUZZLE SPOILER ALERTS -- do not read if you have not yet solved the tournament puzzles and intend to!

  • Puzzle 1: 6 minutes (fastest time among all solvers: 3 minutes). After P1, I was in a tie for 59th place -- I was a bit slow and there isn't a lot of spread among the top 100 or so solvers on this first, relatively easy puzzle.
  • Puzzle 2: 7 minutes (fastest: 4 minutes). At this point I climbed up to 34th place, 11 in B, 4th mid-Atlantic, 6th in 50s.
  • Puzzle 3: 13 minutes (fastest: 6 minutes). This was an unusually hard P3, with a chemistry theme that included some very unfamiliar words: LANTHANUM, MOSCOVIUM, and the truly awe-inspiring PRASEODYMIUM.  Amazingly, I had no errors on this puzzle, but I probably spent 2-3 minutes second guessing my crossing answers on these words that I wasn't sure about.  I was disappointed with my time, but glad that I got everything right.  I didn't record my placement after P3 and haven't bothered to recompute it.
  • Puzzle 4: 4 minutes (fastest: 3 minutes). I was very, very happy with this time.  Until I saw my placement, in the mid-70s, and realized that they had not given me my 16-minute time bonus.  That took me until late Saturday night to get resolved.  Luckily, I didn't see the scoring error until after P6, or it might have distracted me.  That also kept me from seeing my correct rankings until the error was corrected.
  • Puzzle 5: 13 minutes (fastest: 7 minutes).  This puzzle (always the hardest puzzle of the tournament) had a brutally tricky and astonishingly clever theme -- the long answers were all two-word answers with the first word ending in "D" and the second word starting with "NA".  But you also had to put "DNA" in the word-boundary square and the long answers were all "recombined", or mixed so the "NA" words were rotated down to the next long answer.  So for example, one answer was "UNITE[DNA]TASHA", a recombination of "UNITED NATIONS" and "BORIS AND NATASHA."  It took me a little while to figure out the trick, but I was still quite happy with my time.
  • Puzzle 6: 7 minutes (fastest: 4 minutes).  Easy puzzle.  I should have been faster but was pleased nonetheless.
  • Puzzle 7: 9 minutes (fastest: 6 minutes).  This was an easy puzzle but is Sunday-sized, so it is just a grueling solve that requires a lot of stamina and never letting up.  I've been practicing on larger puzzles to try to keep up my pace, and it seemed to pay off.  I had my fastest time ever on a P7, tied for 14th in the whole field (if I've counted correctly; the detailed spreadsheet results that let you sort by individual times aren't posted yet...).  I was really happy with my time and thought that maybe it would put me into the B finals.  But it was not to be -- it was in fact two minutes faster than Roberta's P7 time, but I needed to be three minutes faster to pull ahead of her overall. The thing that makes it just a bit hard to swallow is that when I looked up after finishing the grid, the clock showed 36:57. That means I just missed the 35-minute time. It meant I had nearly a full minute to check the puzzle, but I had everything right anyway, so if I would have just finished 5 seconds earlier, I would have had time to shoot my hand up and pull ahead.  C'est la vie!
Roberta did us mid-Atlantic B solvers in our 50s proud, ending up in 2nd place.  In a shocking development, the audience learned, about 15 minutes into the B finals, that they had accidentally given the solvers the A clues (which are substantially harder)!  So maybe I'm just as glad that I wasn't up there... In another shocking development, which I missed because we had to leave for the train station, Tyler Hinman had an error in his Puzzle 8 solution (GLAT/TEATAX instead of GLAM/MEATAX), pushing him down into 3rd place, and leaving the field clear for Dan Feyer's extraordinary 7th year as the top finisher (and Joon Pahk's 2nd place finish, in his first time in the Big Dance since debuting as the top B solver in his rookie year in 2010).  I think we can expect to see 3rd-place B solver and rookie Grayson Holmes climbing up in the rankings in future years too!

The rest of my placements were:
  • #23 overall (out of 619 solvers = top 4%).  For those of you who are wondering whether this means that I would ever have a shot at taking the whole tournament, my score of 11470 was 625 points, or 25 minutes, behind Dan Feyer's score of 12095.  So no; no, I don't have a shot at the A finals.  If I had saved those pesky 5 seconds on P7, though, I would have been in 18th place (lots of tiebreaker opportunities at that one-minute-faster category!).
  • #4 in B division (one minute behind Roberta Strauss). 
  • #4 of solvers in their 50s (tied with Anne Ellison, but she had a higher score (3 minutes faster!) on the tiebreaking 7th puzzle, so it was well earned by Anne.  The "missing 5 seconds" on P7 would have put me into 2nd, though, above both Anne and Roberta).
  • #3 in the mid-Atlantic (only two awards are given) (one minute behind both Roberta Strauss (2nd) and Andrew Feist (1st), and I would have beaten them both with the tiebreaker had I shaved those 5 seconds off of my P7 time).
I really had a good time this year, didn't feel stressed or pressured, enjoyed myself, and am super pleased with my placement in the end.  It was fun riding the train up and back with Scott, catching up with many other crossword-puzzling friends, discovering a new Greek restaurant in Stamford, having a traditional late-night drink with my old friend Pete, and generally relaxing and embracing my inner nerd.  Hope to see you at the Indie 500! (June 3 in Washington, D.C.) -- and perhaps at the Boston NPL con in July (which would mark the first time I've actually managed to make it to an NPL convention!)

Sunday, April 3, 2016

ACPT16 Recap

The coolest news from the tournament (for me, at least) is that my Friday night "Escape the Room" team (me, Hollie Schmidt, and Julie Baker) was the fastest 3-person team in the puzzle hunt!  (We weren't the fastest team, though -- that honor would go to the only 1-person team, Tyler Hinman.)  We weren't expecting that, and were quite thrilled and delighted to be the first group to solve it.  (A puzzle hunt is a collection of interlocking puzzles that you have to solve and assemble clues from, in this case while collecting more puzzles and hints from people stationed around the room playing different roles.)  We were pretty good solvers, but more importantly, we worked REALLY well together as a team, and helped each other out perfectly.

The other good news is that I seem to be getting faster, so despite having entered the first of the "old folks'" categories (solvers in their 50s), it appears that I haven't peaked in crossword puzzling ability just yet.

The bad news is that I had one error in one puzzle.  I solved most of Puzzle 2 very quickly, but had one spot that I just couldn't get -- I came back to it multiple times as I was solving the rest of the puzzle, hoping something would occur to me, but I simply didn't know the words (or thought I didn't; more in a moment).  Finally I just had one letter missing, and needed to solve C-RTANA (Windows assistant) and C-NTE (medieval tale).  I thought about putting an "O" in that space, and even wrote it in, but then got to thinking about how the Across word looked like "COMTE," which definitely would not have been right, and started questioning myself.  I had no idea what the Down answer was -- CORTANA and CARTANA seemed to be equally lame names.  (Yeah, even though I'm an AI researcher, I never heard of it before.  But I'm also a Mac person, can'tcha tell?)  I got it in my head that maybe CANTE was Old English for a CHANT or CHANSON, and decided I should guess an A there, even though I was maybe leaning a bit more towards CORTANA than CARTANA in the other direction.  Well, guess what?  Yeah, it's CORTANA.  Also, stupid me, I've talked to my opera-loving mom any number of times about how I've never seen Strauss's "The Tales of Hoffmann," aka LES CONTES D'HOFFMANN.  So really, somewhere in my brain, I knew the right answer.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Here's a lesson in positive thinking for all of you kids out there.  If you sit staring at something hard, and your brain is telling itself, "Arrghh!  I don't know this!  I'll never get it!" you're a lot more likely to get it wrong than if you stare at it thinking, "I am sure I can get this if I just relax and think about it in the right way."  I am convinced that if I could have believed in myself and let my mind drift for a short while, free-associating, I would have thought of Hoffmann and his tales.  Instead, I just thought repeatedly and hopelessly about how I was going to have to guess randomly -- and then I guessed wrong.

A brief digression for those of you who aren't familiar with ACPT scoring.  Each correct word is worth 10 points.  Each whole minute you finish before the time limit is worth 25 points, but one minute is deducted from your time bonus for every missing or incorrect letter.  And a completely correct grid is worth 150 additional points.  So getting ONE letter wrong means that you lose 150 points, plus a 25-point minute bonus, plus 20 points for the two words that are now wrong.  That's 195 points.  That's a LOT of points, nearly 8 minutes of solving time worth.  It's damn hard to come back from one incorrect letter.

The good news is that other than that one fatal error, I had a blazingly fast and otherwise flawless year.  So I ended up doing really well, and would have done PHENOMENALLY well if I hadn't made that mistake.  Here are my times and scores on the puzzles, with commentary on relative speed:

  1. 1. Solved cleanly in 5 minutes (the fastest solvers completed this in 3 minutes).  At the end of P1, I was tied for 24th place.
  2. 2. Solved with one letter wrong in 7 minutes (fastest time was 4 minutes).  That one-letter error hurled me all the way down to #184.
  3. 3. Solved cleanly in 7 minutes (tied for 18th fastest; the fastest time was 4 minutes).  At this point, I should have been #26, but was clawing my way back, and was now tied for #82.
  4. 4. Solved cleanly in 5 minutes (tied for 16th fastest; fastest time was 3 minutes).  Still gaining a little ground, I ended up tied for #69.
  5. 5. Solved cleanly in 11 minutes.  The fastest time was 8 minutes, but this puzzle deserves some more context.  Puzzle 5 is often referred to as "The Dreaded Puzzle Five."  It is always extremely hard, and always has a very tricky theme.  I won't go into the theme here, just in case anybody is reading who has not yet tried their hand at the tournament puzzles.  Suffice it to say that about 85-90% of the competitors were still sitting in the room trying to figure it out when the 30-minute time limit expired.  I figured out the gimmick pretty fast, and just flew through the puzzle.  Only SIX solvers solved this puzzle faster than I did, including the three people who ended up in the A finals.  I was tied with three top-ten finishers, including 7-time champion Jon Delfin and 5-time champion Tyler Hinman.  I gained back a LOT of ground on this puzzle, and moved up to #26 overall.  If I had not screwed up P2, I would at this point have been in 13th place in the entire tournament, and 1st in the B division.  For many years to come, I will relive the glory of walking out of the ballroom and seeing a mere handful of the fastest solvers at the tournament out there ahead of me.
  6. 6. Solved cleanly in 7 minutes (tied for 15th fastest; the fastest time was 5 minutes).  Still in #26 overall.
  7. 7. Solved cleanly in 11 minutes (I was definitely sluggish on this one -- had a hard time getting started, and flailed around a bit in the middle.  I was tied for 33rd fastest; the fastest time was 6 minutes).  
My final rankings were:
  • #26 overall (out of 575 solvers) (I was #25 as of the end of the day Sunday, but somebody must have had a scoring error corrected, because I'm now #26)
  • #9 in B division (was similarly #8 for a brief while...)
  • #7 for solvers in their 50s (was #6)
  • #5 Mid-Atlantic region (was #4)
  • #7 female solver (was #6)
In my fantasy world, where I can go back and change that "A" in P2 to an "O" after all, here's where I would have been (even after the #25 -> #26 fiasco):
  • #15 overall
  • #3 in B division.  (I solved the final puzzle slightly faster than the winner, but who knows how I would have done standing on the stage and solving on a whiteboard.)
  • #5 in 50s
  • #2 Mid-Atlantic
  • #3 female solver
Not too shabby for somebody with a mistake -- and there's always next year, right?

Regardless of outcome, the tournament weekend is always great fun.  I rode up with fellow Mid-Atlantic contestants Scott Weiss and Alex Jeffrey, hung out with many old puzzling friends, and enjoyed immersing myself in puzzlegeekdom for a few days.  The playoffs were thrilling as always, with a HUGE upset when Howard Barkin unseated six-time champion Dan Feyer, who has seemed unbeatable and unstoppable.  Congratulations, Howard!  Next year's facedown should be epic...

Sunday, March 16, 2014

ACPT 2014 Recap

I had a very fast ACPT year, but I also had a couple of what can only be described as brain farts.  So... I did very well (47th out of 580 contestants), but really should have been around 20th place if I hadn't had those two mistakes.

I finished the first puzzle in 4 minutes, just behind the group of 14 solvers who finished in only 3 minutes.  Off to a good start!

Dan Feyer (5-time sequential champion, including this year) finished Puzzle #2 in an incredible 4 minutes.  Six people finished in 5 minutes (including A finalists Tyler Hinman and Howard Barkin, and my mid-Atlantic archnemesis #1, Erik Agard, who is both delightful and a junior in college, which is just a bit humiliating for us old folks).  Another 11 solvers finished in 6 minutes.  I finished in 7 minutes, along with 15 other solvers, including my good friend, mid-Atlantic archnemesis #2, and three-time Jeopardy! champion, Scott Weiss.

Puzzle #3 went OK.  I solved it in 12 minutes, a solid if not especially awesome time (tied for 37th), and certainly nowhere near as fast as the top three solvers, who finished it in 6 (yes, that's SIX) minutes. I felt a bit fuzzy on it and knew I could have done better, but oh well.

Puzzle #4 was my Waterloo.  I solved it in 5 minutes, two minutes behind the fastest solvers but still tied for 16th.  But.  But.  I had all of the answers right, but my hand and brain just betrayed me, writing a "P" where there should have been an "R", smack in the middle of "PEPSON" and "BLACK MAPKET."  I just honestly have no idea whatsoever how that happened.  But it's there, clear as day, no mistaking it for an R under any light.  You can see it in my facebook profile pictures if you're inclined to schadenfreude.  I am still kicking myself, because I even took half a minute to check it over but didn't see the error somehow.

Fortunately, I didn't know about the mistake until later that evening, so it didn't rattle me going into the monstrously hard Puzzle #5.  That's always a tough puzzle, but this year it was especially killer -- I know a lot of fast solvers who didn't even manage to finish it.  At 6 or 7 minutes in, I had gotten pretty much nowhere and didn't think I had any hope at all of finishing.  Then I somehow had a breakthrough and started working my way across the puzzle, and finished correctly with 12 minutes left on the clock.  I actually didn't check it over, because I had revisited the whole grid so frequently in trying to solve it in the first place!  I was damn proud of finishing, but was still 9 minutes behind the two top solvers (Dan and Tyler).  Good grief.

Puzzle #6 was my best performance -- I finished in 6 minutes, just a minute behind the top 5 solvers and tied with only 6 other solvers (including my good friend Katie Hamill, former C champion and B finalist, and the first person I ever met at a crossword puzzle tournament!)

By Puzzle #7, though, I had found out that I screwed up on Puzzle #4 and my head wasn't quite where it needed to be.  I actually solved it really quickly -- I finished in 22 minutes, which should have put me tied for 31st for that puzzle (five minutes behind the top solver, Erik Agard), and 30th overall.  But... somehow... like I said, my head wasn't in the game, I guess.  I left three squares blank.  There was part of the puzzle that I wasn't sure about -- and I *knew* I wasn't sure about it -- so I left it for later, and then just didn't take the time to check it over or come back to it.  Down in a blaze of glory.

Still and all, it was, as always, a great time, and I plan to be there again next year hoping to redeem myself from the lapses in attention!!  As always, it was a ton of fun spending the weekend around puzzlers.  My Friday night game performance (two first-place finishes and a second-place finish in the four rotating puzzle rounds) redeemed me from my "oops" moments in the tournament, and I even won a prize! (the game "Lexagon," which is pretty good but has some design flaws...)  I also had a great time having a now-traditional Friday night drink with my old friend Pete Muller (who also regaled us marvelously in the talent show Sunday), enjoying the now-traditional Chinese lunch on Saturday with a group of puzzling pals, and eating a wonderful dinner at Jean-Georges with my sister Susan.

See you next year!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

ACPT13 Recap

I had a great year at ACPT -- I was as fast as last year, but didn't make any mistakes, so I ended in 24th place out of 570 solvers (just about where I would have been last year had I not made any mistakes).  And amazingly, I was exactly two minutes shy of the B finals -- which is exactly how far out of the B finals I would have been last year had I not made any mistakes.  How weird is that?
  • Puzzle scores: P1 - 1205, P2 - 1520, P3 - 1730, P4 - 1265, P5 - 1475, P6 - 1945, P7 - 2370
  • Puzzle times: P1 - 4 min, P2 - 7, P3 - 14, P4 - 5, P5 - 17, P6 - 7, P7 - 13
  • (Fastest puzzle times by any solver: P1 - 3, P2 - 4, P3 - 6, P4 - 3, P5 - 9, P6 - 4, P7 - 8)
  • Overall score: 11,510
  • Overall ranking: 24th
  • B division ranking: 5th (B division includes all players who haven't been in the A or B finals in the last 7 years)
  • Mid-Atlantic ranking: 3rd (top female solver in the Mid-Atlantic)
  • Rank among female solvers: 7th
Note that those top two B solvers now move into the A division, clearing out some of my competition.  (Of course, I know of at least two B solvers who normally beat me soundly who made one or two mistakes this year, so it's not as though my path to the finals is without obstacles...)

Here's an interesting observation:  8 of the 9 finalists in the A, B, and C finals were men, including all three B finalists.  But the next two were women (as are the two B solvers I referred to above).  So you never know -- there is a distinct possibility of an all-female B final; how cool would that be?

Over the course of the seven puzzles, I moved from tied for 12th, to 21st, to 34th, to 29th, to 29th, to 23rd, to 24th.  Pretty consistent performance across the tournament, which is a nice change from my usual ricocheting from great scores to lousy ones.

I've been focusing recently on solving the hardest puzzles I can find (even if I have to put them aside and come back to them later), and on solving really large Sunday-sized puzzles.  Those both seem to have helped, although I still think I could work more on stamina and strategy for the big puzzles (my P7 time actually went up compared to last year, from 10 minutes to ... -- I don't think that was because it was harder; I think I was just less focused than I needed to be.  I probably could have gotten my two "B finals minutes" on that puzzle if I had had a better day).

Friday, March 23, 2012

ACPT 2012 Recap

I thought I'd share my 2012 ACPT crossword puzzling experience with anybody who would care to read it...

I finished Puzzle 1 (a 15-minute easy warmup puzzle) in under 4 minutes, which was the second fastest time range. (Six of the elite solvers, including 6-time champion Tyler Hinman and 3-time champion Dan Feyer, solved it in under 3 minutes.) Off to a good start, that meant I entered the competition tied for 7th place (out of just under 600 contestants) - hooray!

Unsurprisingly, as the puzzles got harder, things didn't go quite as well. On Puzzle 2, a 30-minute puzzle, I finished in under 13 minutes, not nearly as fast as the 6 minutes of the top solvers, but still fast enough to keep me at 21st place.

I got stuck a bit on Puzzle 3 (another 30-minute puzzle), but still managed to finish in 16 minutes (the fastest solvers completed this one in 7 minutes -- no, I'm not kidding). Which would have dropped me down to 31st place. If I had completed it cleanly. Sadly, I did not -- I had TRIP instead of GRIP for "Golf coach's concern." Which would have been an OK answer, if the crossing "G" hadn't come from "SPF CHANGS" -- or, in my puzzle, "SPF CHANTS." Oh, well, I was still fast enough to remain near the top 10% (which was my goal for the tournament), in 70th place.

I made back some ground on Puzzle 4, a 20-minute puzzle that I completed in under 4 minutes (I know, right?!) -- of course, again, the top solvers finished this one in under 3 minutes, but you can't complain about a 3.5-minute solve. That pulled me up to 62nd place.

Then there was Puzzle 5. Oh, the drama of Puzzle 5. So first of all, if you're not familiar with the ACPT, they refer to this puzzle as "The Dreaded Puzzle Five." It chews solvers up and spits them out, year after year. I had previously blown two Puzzle 5s -- one year, I had a mistake; one year, I just sat there staring at a whole block that Would Not Yield, and left early after filling in a few random letters, hoping to get at least a couple of bonus minutes. But this year, I positively flew through it, and other than a few panicky "Maybe I can't do this?!" moments, it didn't actually seem all that difficult. I finished the 30-minute puzzle in under 13 minutes, which would have given me a score of 1595, which would have tied for the 13th highest score on that puzzle, two minutes faster than two of the four Mid-Atlantic solvers who beat me overall this year (Doug Hoylman and Erik Agard). You will note that this is all in the conditional tense. Because I had an error. Oh, not the error I thought I might have made, where I wrote "SUR" instead of "SNO for one answer" -- that one, I fixed when I entered the crossing answers. No, this was in the lower right quadrant, where I had "SLANDER" as the answer for "Slight." Which is a perfectly good answer. Or would be, if the "A" in "SLANDER" wasn't supposed to be the "E" in "DIE" ("It can be loaded"). I tried to make the case that "DIA" (the graph drawing software) can also be loaded, which would make it a clean solve, but they weren't buying it. (What, not everybody uses Dia?!) So instead of a beautiful 35th, I only pulled myself up to 49th. (Yes, that's right, with an error on P5, I still moved UP from 62nd to 49th. That's just how hard P5 was, and just how fast my time was.)

Puzzle 7 neither helped nor hurt me -- under 9 minutes on a 30-minute puzzle, fast enough to be in the top 40 or so solvers but not fast enough to make a serious difference. I think I was still around 50th but didn't write down my standing that morning.

Sunday morning, of course, is the final puzzle. Which is huge (a 45-minute Sunday-size puzzle), but never terribly hard. This year, it was terribly easy. So easy that I was really just limited by how fast I could write, and how much stamina I had to stay focused. I finished in under 10 minutes (I'm not making this up!), slower than only 14 other solvers. (The fastest solver, Dan Feyer, finished in 6 minutes!)

Here's the thing, though -- when I went to check my final standings later in the morning, I was 110th, with a score of 1550 (insteadof 2425!!) on Puzzle 7. Clearly an error had been made -- it turned out they had scanned somebody else's puzzle (it's still wrong -- you can see that the handwriting isn't mine if you look at the scan: ),and it must have been somebody who had no time bonus (that score differential is exactly equal to 35 minutes of bonus time). (I was told later that actually the problem was that my bonus time was accidentally entered into the missing-letters box.)

So I emailed Will Shortz on the tournament page, explained the situation, and got an email saying yes, my solve was clean and I had 35 minutes remaining, so they would change it. At which point I went to check the standings to see if they'd already updated it -- and my score on P7 had dropped, to 1050, which put me in 154th place! It finally got sorted out on Thursday and the correct results have been posted:

  • Puzzle scores: P1 - 1165, P2 - 1575, P3 - 1485, P4 - 1330, P5 - 1400, P6 - 1895, P7 - 2425
  • Overall score: 11,275
  • Overall ranking: 44th
  • B division ranking: 22nd (B division includes all players who haven't been in the A or B finals in the last 7 years)
  • Mid-Atlantic ranking: 5th (top female solver in the Mid-Atlantic)
  • Rank among female solvers: 9th

I also did an Alternate Reality Analysis, a world in which I didn't make those two stupid mistakes on Puzzles 3 and 5, just for yuks. Of course, this assumes that everybody else still made their mistakes!

  • Adjusted puzzle scores: P3 - 1680, P5 - 1595
  • Overall score: 11,665
  • Overall ranking: 21st
  • B division ranking: 5th (just two minutes shy of the B finals!)
  • Mid-Atlantic ranking: 4th
  • Ranking among female solvers: 4th

Which is all kinda cool, even if it's not reality. (Oh, and I would have won the 70s and Seniors (80s+) divisions with those scores, so if I can just keep it up for another 25 years, I'm golden!)

The interesting thing is that I felt as though I was wasting a fair amount of time on a lot of the puzzles, jumping around a bit inefficiently. So I believe I have the capacity to get faster. The question is whether I have the capacity to stop making stupid mistakes, which is much less certain!!

A couple of people have asked me how I prepared for the tournament, and how I managed to improve so much (the first year I went, I was ranked 145th, just shy of the top 20% -- that's great for a rookie but still much lower than the top 7.5% ranking of this year). Here's my advice for those who want to go into training:

  • Do lots of crossword puzzles, of all levels of difficulty.
  • You don't always have to race the clock, but it's good to spend some time regularly solving as fast as you can. I solve the NYT puzzle online so I can gauge my performance -- your relative rank in this community is reasonably well correlated with what your rank would be at ACPT.
  • Don't ever give up on a puzzle. I used to peek in the back when I couldn't get an answer, figuring I'd learn a new thing.
  • That habit trained me into psychologically being unprepared for a situation where I couldn't peek. Once I forced myself to stop doing this, I was surprised at how often I could break what seemed to be an impossible logjam. Sometimes I set a puzzle aside and come back to it, and then bam! I can solve it.
  • If you are really stuck, force yourself to make your best possible guess -- what would you write if it were the tournament? -- and actually write it down. Commit! Then, and only then, can you look to see if you guessed right. Whether you did or not, go look up that bit of knowledge on the Internet, so that you can cement it into your head.
  • Don't ever do the previous step (commit then check) until you've finished the entire rest of the puzzle. Often there will be some tricky bit of theme or wordplay elsewhere in the puzzle that will let you break through in a place where you thought you were stuck. So train yourself not to give up prematurely.
  • Be sure you do puzzles on paper, not just online, since the tournament is on paper. I'm actually much faster on paper, but I know a number of strong solvers who are faster online, and have heard them say they need to spend more time training on paper puzzles.
  • And of course, it's worth re-emphasizing: do lots of crossword puzzles, of all difficulty.

Some things I don't do, but I could imagine would be useful:

  • Learn who the key crossword puzzle constructors are, and get to know their style by solving lots of their puzzles. (I have a hard time actually paying attention to who constructed what puzzle, so this is a bit hopeless for me.)
  • Have a daily routine of doing lots of newspaper puzzles (I only do the NYT and sometimes the Washington Post because I subscribe; the other puzzles I do are almost all in books, though I sometimes do Brendan Emmett Quigley's puzzles, and always try to do Matt Gaffney's competition puzzle -- though I'm hopeless at the metas).
  • Read the almanac, dictionary, and encyclopedia for fun.